By Irshad A Khan
Industrial Revolution and diseases
Since the industrial revolution in mid eighteenth century man did not stop to discover and invent to make life more comfortable and fast. Speed in the world started catching up with railway system, mechanized textile mills, coal propelled machines and metallurgy, energy, electricity and aeroplanes and space crafts. Agriculture too progressed with higher production by developing high yield variety of food grains like wheat, rice and maize and other farm products. The famine and starvation became a thing of the past, albeit gradually, more particularly in rich and middle class income groups. Science and technology started dominating all walks of life. Diseases and epidemics were controlled to a great extent. Mining, industrialization, urban expansion and infrastructure development resulted in clearance of millions of hectares of forests and overuse and misuse of natural resources. The global population that was one billion in 1800 became 7 billion in 2012 and it grew four times during the past one hundred years alone.
The discovery of fossil fuels i.e. coal and petroleum, as source of energy, dramatically and exponentially expanded manufacturing industry and transportation and provided significant convenience for domestic lighting, cooking, and air conditioning. With fossil fuel came air pollution and then the climate change.
Small pox was eradicated; vaccines were developed for tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid, measles, chicken pox etc. Many diseases have been controlled or reduced with better treatment. Plague is unheard of for the last one hundred years. Life expectancy increased with new medicines, diagnostic tests and overall progress in medical science. But new pathogens and epidemics kept coming. Spanish flu devastated the world starting in 1918. Common influenza, HIV, Ebola, Avian flu, SARS, Zika and now SAR-CoV2 have posed challenge to the well-being and survival of the human race. Covid-19 is proving to be the most dangerous pandemic as the virus is highly contagious and lethal. About four billion people all over the world fully or partially remain locked in their houses since February 2020 through May 2020. The economic activities have come to a halt, traveling has almost stopped and the life has almost come to a standstill.
Has Homo sapiens transcended its planetary boundaries? Have we reached a point where our population has exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth? Why the flu virus is more lethal for people above 60 years of age. Is the Corona pandemic part of the organic evolution and the operation of the theory of “survival of the fittest”? Is the nature out to cull the human population to adjust it to the carrying capacity of the earth? How badly has the man disturbed the ecological balance and damaged natural ecosystems, land , air and water? And is the Corona virus nature’s wrath and warning?
After the second World War, Covid-19 is the most dangerous happening. There have been such epidemics and pandemics in the past also like the black death in the medieval ages and the Spanish flue in 1918. However, the current pandemic is an unexpected and shocking ongoing historical event being experienced by the people born after the end of the second world war.
Past 75 years have seen comparative peace as against the frequent wars in the previous decades and centuries. When wars were the regular feature of human civilization these used to kill hundred of thousands of people. The major senseless military expeditions after the World War II included Vietnam, the middle-east, Africa and Afghanistan. There were many civil wars also in some third world countries. But by and large the wars were limited and the major part of the world remained safe. These 75 years witnessed great progress in science and technology, infrastructure development, energy, medicine, defense technology, electronics, communications, travel, tourism and space. The information technology completely changed all sectors of economy and human civilization. The unprecedented and rapid economic growth led to the expansion of employment opportunities, better nutrition, housing and clothing, globalization, prosperity and wealth creation.
Along with the progress came concern for the environmental degradation. And despite the universal acceptance that development should not be with environmental destruction, and the depleting natural resources should be used in such a way so as to be enjoyed by the future generations too. But the sustainable development remained just a rhetoric and a slogan. Serious commitments and actions have been promised but not undertaken world wide to move to a lifestyle that promoted sustainability. The stage evolved from air and water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity to an extremely disastrous irreversible and ever deteriorating climate change due to increased emissions of the green house gases, mainly carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Three decades ago in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted by the international community which was later ratified by all the countries (1994). It was agreed that measures and actions should be taken to save the world from climate change catastrophe and timely action should be taken to mitigate the climate change to avoid its disastrous impacts. The Conference of the Parties (COP) to this Convention practically met every year and worked to evolve an acceptable international agreement to achieve the objectives of the Convention. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was the first step in this direction. However, it practically failed as the largest emitters did not ratify the Protocol. With prolonged efforts and hectic negotiations, the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016 with objective to not allow the global atmospheric temperature to rise beyond 2 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial level. (Please see a blog on the Paris Agreement at www.clifem.com). Countries prepared and submitted their commitment for mitigation and adaptation through the nationally determined contributions (NDC). Suddenly the USA decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2017 which was Donald Trump’s election promise. The ambitions in form of NDCs that were submitted needed review and implementation monitoring under the Paris Agreement. However, many experts are of the view that the NCDs are mere declaration of aspirations and many countries did not honestly commit to implement the NCDs. Many expressed in their documents that they needed huge amount of financial resources to fulfill their commitments.
Climate Change will be more dangerous than Covid-19
However, the climate change issue has in effect been put on the back burner, in view of the serious pandemic prevalent in the world threatening lives, economy and the well being of human race. The whole world has come feel its impact and vulnerability, with slow down of practical all activities. Millions of people are living inside their houses to protect from the Corona virus. In November 2019 no one imagined that the world would face what it is experiencing. The man is hiding from the powerful invisible enemy who has disrupted the normal life. It came without warning and quietly and spread all over the world causing death, sickness, unemployment, poverty and psychological trauma. Due to the world wide lockdown and slowdown of the movement and economic activities the rate of GHG emission has temporarily reduced and air and water became cleaner in highly polluted locations. The air quality in the highly air polluted cities became good. The wild animals came out from the forests to city to reclaim their lost habitats. But as the world get out to resume normal activities this short-lived environmental benefit will soon disappear.
Like the other previous pandemics this will also end in the next 12-18 months. Once treatment and vaccines for Covid-19 are developed, there will be business as usual till the next disaster though the pandemic will leave behind a trail of human tragedy and economic miseries.
Man should learn from this experience. The future pandemics cannot be prevented. The wild animals in the forests have all kinds of viruses that do not harm those animals, but once they find a new host in form of a human being, they may cause harm and make people sick and even may prove lethal. As we clear more and more forests and destroy natural ecosystems, we will face the risk of release and transmission of new and mutated viruses from the animals. So long they remain in forests, we are safe. Deforestation and loss of biodiversity particularly in the tropical regions.
One can still hope to develop drugs and vaccines and enhance health care infrastructure to combat diseases and pandemics, but the man-made disaster in form of the irreversible climate change that is gradually building up will have no medicine or vaccine. The climate change is proceeding unabated due to increased emissions of GHG and it will lead to an unimaginable catastrophe. The use of fossil fuels is not going to decline in near future as more and more countries attempt to develop their economy. The climate change impact will inevitably pose a more serious challenge to human survival in near future.